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(Photo: Van Gogh Museum)

“The Bedroom,” Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting, with its honey-yellow bed pressed into the corner of a cozy sky-blue room, is instantly recognizable to art lovers, with his signature contrasting hues. But does our experience of this painting change upon learning that van Gogh had originally depicted those walls in violet, not blue, or that he was less a painter wrestling with his demons and more of a deliberate, goal-oriented artist?

These questions are raised by a new analysis, eight years in the making, of hundreds of van Gogh’s canvases as well as his palette, pigments, letters and notebooks by scientists at Shell, the oil company, in collaboration with the Dutch Cultural Heritage Agency and curators at the newly renovated Van Gogh Museum here, which owns the world’s largest collection of works by that Dutch Post Impressionist.

The research did not lead to “earth-shattering new insights” that rewrite van Gogh’s life story, said the director of the Van Gogh Museum, Axel Rüger, but it could shift the understanding of van Gogh’s temperament and personality. The results of that study will be revealed in an exhibition, “Van Gogh at Work,” which opens on Wednesday and features about 200 paintings and drawings, 150 of them by van Gogh and others by contemporaries, including Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard.

“You discover more clearly that van Gogh was a very methodical artist, which runs counter to the general myth that he was a manic, possibly slightly deranged man who just spontaneously threw paint at the canvas,” Mr. Rüger said. “He was actually someone who knew very well about the properties of the materials he used, how to use them, and also he created very deliberate compositions. In that sense it’s a major insight in that it gives us a better notion of van Gogh the artist. He was very goal-oriented.”


NIna Siegal
New York Times


Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers,1889. Are the yellows at risk? (Photo: Van Gogh Museum)

Last year, conservators at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam noticed that areas of bright yellow paint in many of the artist’s works, such as Sunflowers, were turning shades of green and brown. To find out why, they teamed up with scientists at the University of Antwerp in Belgium.

Online news reports claimed that the scientists found prolonged exposure to LED lights to be the cause of the darkening. That conclusion, however, is inaccurate. “This was not a study into the effects of LED lighting,” says Ella Hendriks, a senior conservator at the Van Gogh Museum. “It was a study on the aging process of the yellow pigment.”

Lead by Koen Janssens, the Antwerp researchers tested samples of the browning paint and identified it as chrome yellow. Janssens and his team then found that exposure to light caused samples of chrome yellow to darken. Lighter shades of the pigment, he explained, darkened quickly because they contain a high amount of sulfur, which makes them more susceptible to chemical reactions. Dark shades of chrome yellow contain little sulfur, and were less effected by light.


Stephanie Strasnick
Art News

Microscopic samples of the work were carefully extracted in two places

It seems a layer of varnish added later to protect the work is in fact turning the yellow to a greyish-orange colour.

High-intensity X-ray studies described in Analytical Chemistry found compounds called oxalates were responsible.

But atoms from the original paint were also found in the varnish, which may therefore be left in place.

It is not the first time that the bright yellows that Van Gogh preferred have been examined with X-rays.

In 2011, an article in the same journal from a team led by the University of Antwerp’s Koen Janssens reported that a pigment Van Gogh favoured called chrome yellow degraded when other, chromium-containing pigments were present.

The new work was begun during a conservation treatment in 2009, when conservators found that the yellows in Flowers In A Blue Vase – this time from a pigment called cadmium yellow – had turned greyish and cracked.

Normally, cadmium yellow grows paler and less vibrant as it ages.

So the team again took tiny samples of the work to some of Europe’s largest sources of X-rays: the ESRF in France and Desy in Germany. Both use vast particle accelerators to speed up electrons, which spray out X-rays as they pass around the accelerators.

The purpose was to determine not only what was in the samples in terms of atoms and molecules, but also the precise structures in the interface layer between the original paint and the varnish.

That is where the team was shocked to find a compound called cadmium oxalate as the cause of the grey-orange pallor.


Jason Palmer